By Stuart Munro-Hay
Within the expanded Aksumite kingdom, a number of flourishing urban communities appear to have grown up. Adulis, the chief Aksumite, and probably pre-Aksumite, port, and Aksum itself are special cases; but it seems, from archaeological and literary evidence, that a number of other towns became established on trade routes or crossroads, or wherever particularly favorable conditions were encountered. Water availability was an evident precondition (Anfray 1973i: 15, n. 5). The development of some degree of urbanism in Aksumite Ethiopia is an interesting phenomenon, but one which is not yet even partially documented. All that survives of many of the `towns’ are the traces of a few monumental structures such as temples, churches or élite residential/administrative buildings, and scatterings of pottery on the surface.
These have been reported from the time of the earliest explorations in Ethiopia, but have only rarely been properly surveyed, much less excavated and planned. Excavation may yet provide some surprises, as it has already done at Matara, but in general, these towns may not have been very large, perhaps of little more than large village status, though Matara certainly seems to have been a sizeable community (Anfray 1963, 1974; Anfray and Annequin 1965). Such communities were probably much more intimately associated with the surrounding countryside that is, for example, modern manufacturing towns. But even so, their existence bespeaks an agricultural output sufficient to provide the surplus necessary to support at least some town dwellers engaged in specialist pursuits, and the availability of more or less efficient exchange and transport facilities on a regional scale. The urban setting throughout Ethiopia, including port, capital, and market or trading towns, implies the development of a social stratification.
At the top, we can envisage the occupants of the élite dwellings and elaborately-constructed tombs. Further ranks would have included the merchants, traders or middlemen who arranged the supply-system, or the architects, builders, and artisans who raised the buildings. The base of the system rested upon the laborers in the fields and the workers in other sectors. We can assume from the apparently long existence of the towns that reasonably stable conditions prevailed in the country both politically and otherwise. This at least partly urbanised Aksumite society was in sharp contrast to the situation in later Ethiopia, when travelers remarked that the country contained no cities or substantial towns, only the mobile tented `capital’ which followed the emperor, and was moved to another region when it had exhausted the resources of a particular spot (Pankhurst 1961: 137ff).
Aksumite cultural traits are found at many of the town sites, some of which may originally have been the local centers for tribal groups later conquered by the Aksumites. The port-city of Adulis, which eventually covered at least 20,000 square meters, according to Paribeni (1907: 443), with its harbor and customs point a short distance away at Gabaza (see below), appears to have originated as the center for the coastal people called Adulitae. It was the first point on the long trade route into Sudan, and, favorably situated as it was in a bay on the Red Sea coast, had obvious opportunities to acquire wealth by trading. Evidence of its prosperity came from Sundström’s and Paribeni’s excavations in 1906, where numbers of gold coins were found in several different occupation levels (Sundström 1907, Paribeni 1907). It was not necessarily the only Aksumite port or coastal city, and another coastal town to the north called Samidi is known (see below). In the Dahlak Islands off the coast, Puglisi (1969: 37ff) noted four typical Aksumite capitals or column bases and a chamfered column re-used in a building at Gim’hilé and more complex carved material at Dahlak Kebir; almost certain evidence for Aksumite activity on the islands. It is perhaps just possible that they could have been taken there later, but it seems inconceivable that the long Aksumite control of the coast would not have encouraged them to secure these islands on the direct path to their main port.
Defense was not apparently an urgent consideration for the people of Adulis; although it was not safe for foreign vessels to anchor in places directly accessible from the Ethiopian coast at the time of the Periplus (Huntingford 1980: 20), the town does not seem to have been walled. Paribeni (1907: 444) searched on all sides of the town for any traces of fortifications, but without success.
Adulis contained large and elegant buildings, churches, and smaller townhouses of a few rooms (Paribeni 1907; Anfray 1974). It lay a short distance inland from the port installations at Gabaza. The Periplus and Procopius do not name Gabaza, but mention the distance of 20 stades from the actual harbor to Adulis itself (Huntingford 1980: 20; Procopius, ed. Dewing 1914: 183). Adulis’ Ethiopic name may have been Zala (Caquot 1965: 225). The merchant Kosmas, who situates the town `2 miles’ from the coast (Wolska-Conus 1968: 364), mentions that Adulis had a governor, Asbas (Wolska-Conus 1968: 368) and that merchants from Alexandria and Ela (Aela or Eilat) traded there (Wolska-Conus 1968: 364). On Kosmas’ map, preserved in much later copies, the position of Adulis is shown with Gabaza a little to the south on the sea-shore, and Samidi to the north (Wolska-Conus 1968: 367). Paribeni wondered if perhaps Adulis had originally been on the seacoast, and excavated a trench at the east side of the ruin-field to test for any such evidence; but the trench instead revealed a church (Paribeni 1907: 529).
Paribeni (1907: 444) also searched for the famous Monumentum Adulitanum. The monument, a sort of symbolic throne, seems to have been fairly elaborate in design. Kosmas describes it as placed at the entrance to the town, on the west side towards the road to Aksum. Executions took place in front of it. It was of good white marble, but not, Kosmas says, Proconnesian, with a square base supported by four slender columns at the corners and another, heavier, column carved in a twisted fashion, in the center. The throne had a back, sculpted with images of Hermes and Hercules, and two arm-rests. Behind it was a basalt stele, fallen and broken, with a peaked top. Both monuments, drawings of which are included on Kosmas’ map of the Ethiopian coast, had inscriptions in Greek on them, one of Ptolemy III (246-221BC) on the stele, and one of an unnamed.
Aksumite king on the throne (see Ch. 11: 5). The name of Adulis’ customs-point, Gabaza, has been preserved also in the Martyrium Sancti Arethae (Carpentier 1861: 747), where it is cited as the naval station for Adulis. In this account of the persecutions in South Arabia in the sixth century, a hermit called Zonaenus, originally from Aela, is said to have been living at the town of Sabi; this has been thought to refer to a coastal town near Adulis (Irvine, in Dictionary of Ethiopian Biography 1975: 217), and the king is said to have descended from it to Adulis after receiving the hermit’s blessing. But it seems rather refer to the hermitage of Abba Pantelewon, very close to Aksum (Boissonade 1833; Carpentier 1861: 748, 751). Carpentier drew attention to Telles’ note about a place called Saba, when he wrote that “Near to Auxum or Aczum, in the kingdom of Tigre in Ethiopia, there is still a small village called Saba or Sabaim, where they say the queen of Sheba or Saba was born” (Tellez 1710: 71).
Ptolemy mentions a town called Sabat, which he situates to the north of Adulis (Stevenson 1932: 108, and map, where it is labeled Sabath). Perhaps it is identical with Kosmas’ Samidi. Huntingford (1980: 100) suggested that Sabat might rather be identified with the town of Saue mentioned in the Periplus; this was three days inland on the Arabian side between Muza and Zafar. Taddesse Tamrat, after Conti Rossini, identified Sabat with Girar near Massawa (1972: 14). Carpentier referred to “Sabae, a port of Ethiopia on the Red Sea, noted by Strabo, and Sabat, a town of Ethiopia in the Adulitic gulf, mentioned by Ptolemy”. Occasionally Adulis itself has been identified with Strabo’s Saba, and Assab with his Sabai (Strabo XVI; Huntingford 1980: 168-70), and even older origins have been proposed for Adulis (see Munro-Hay 1982i). Until a great deal more is known about the earlier archaeological levels at the site of Adulis, the antiquity of its origins remains obscure; but Paribeni found archaeological deposits of over 10m. depth in one of his exploratory trenches (Paribeni 1907: 446ff, 566) and suggested that a considerable amount had been deposited before sustained contacts with other civilizations had developed.
After climbing the steep valleys, such as that of the river Haddas which led from the coastal plain where Adulis was situated up to the highlands, the town of Koloë, mentioned in the Periplus (Huntingford 1980: 20; Casson 1989: 53) was reached. Koloë town and Maste town were also noted by Ptolemy (Stevenson 1932: 108) as among the towns remote from the river in the interior. Koloë derived its importance from its position as the first inland market where ivory could be obtained (see also Ch. 8: 4). It is possible to be identified with the present-day Matara in southern Eritrea. At this site the French archaeologist Francis Anfray, in a spectacular series of excavations (Anfray 1963, 1967, 1974; Anfray and Annequin 1965), found numerous large and splendid mansions surrounded by their dependencies, together with churches, tombs, and even some domestic buildings in humbler residential areas. With the structures, he found the material remains of a very sophisticated way of life. The town’s history, as revealed by the excavations, extends back into the pre-Aksumite period, though so far this earlier archaeological stratum has only been accessible in extremely restricted areas of the site, and has not therefore been thoroughly investigated. Another town, Qohayto, further to the north, which also has the ruins of impressive structures (Littmann 1913: II, 148ff), but which has not yet been excavated, might be another candidate for identification with Koloë. It is most remarkable for the dam, made of seven courses of dressed stone stepped back in typical Aksumite fashion, which still retains water after the rains.
From Koloë the route continued to Aksum and beyond; but although its southern extension led past many Aksumite communities, relatively few sites have so far been identified between Aksum and this main north-south route, and even fewer west of the capital. The eastern highlands, in contrast, contain the ruins of numerous towns and villages, and it is evident that this part of the Aksumite kingdom was a prosperous and populous region from pre-Aksumite days (Anfray 1973i: 20). Aksum itself, as is to be expected, lay within easy access of several villages whose produce was doubtless necessary to feed the capital’s increasing population (Michels, in Kobishchanov 1979). The general homogeneity of the architecture and material goods of these ancient Ethiopian towns is apparent, and, despite regional differences in, for example, building stone and pottery types, the overall `Aksumite’ nature of the civilization is undeniable.
Not very much is yet known about the settlement pattern of the Aksumite kingdom, but it has been possible to identify a number of particularly well-populated areas. The towns and villages along the main tracks south and east from Adulis towards Aksum, like Qohayto, Tekondo, Matara, Zala-Bet-Makeda, Ham, Etchmara, Gulo-Makeda, HagheroDeragweh, Yeha, Dergouah and Henzat, and those further south along the route west of the escarpment from Enda Maryam Tseyon Tehot and Maryam Kedih, or the branch via Anza, Hawzien and Degum, at least as far as Cherqos Agula and Nazret (Anfray 1970) must have developed along with the main trade and supply routes and at cross-routes leading into the interior. Such centers probably lay in areas of farming settlements and acted as their market-outlet and exchange points, and some perhaps supplemented this activity with specific local products or, if suitably situated, could provide services connected with the movement of goods along the main routes.
The large mansions in the towns may have been the residences of sub-kings who had adopted the metropolitan style of living, or those of Aksumite governors and officials. No mansion has yet been identified as belonging to some local ruler known from the inscriptions, as for example the Agwezat kings who are mentioned in the time of Ezana and Kaleb (Ch. 11: 5), and information of such a specific character is likely to be very nearly impossible to obtain. But it is not impossible that the headquarters of the archon of Adulis, or that of the local controller at Matara, could be identified eventually. The mansion buildings at this latter place contained such symbols of wealth and authority as the Matara treasure (gold jewelry found in a bronze pot), an elaborate tomb, and apparently in one case the skeletons of prisoners still lying in their chains in basement oubliettes.
Aksumite settlements also appear to the west and north of Adults, and the inscription of Sembrouthes from Daqqi Mahari, the buildings and coins from Arato (Piva 1907), and even traces as far north as Rora Laba and perhaps beyond, confirm that this region belonged to the Aksumite milieu. However, it is impossible to suggest what the limits of the Aksumite kingdom may have been at its zenith in view of the lack of archaeological evidence. Conti Rossini (1931) notes ruins in northern Eritrea with possible Aksumite affinities, particularly the thrones at Dicdic and the carved stelae at Rora Laba with lion and ox sculptures, and Anfray (1970) describes apparently Aksumite columns from Qeneda in Wollo, as well as paralleling, tentatively, the lion sculpture at Tchika-Beret in southern Wollo with the well-known Aksumite lion-headed water-spouts. Anfray’s survey is the most informative we have so far, but more work is required to define the limits of Aksumite penetration.
One feature often found in Aksumite town sites is the mansion-and-dependencies element (Ch. 5: 4). Such mansions were not only a feature of the towns but also seem, at least in the case of Aksum itself, to have been distributed in their hinterland, perhaps representing local village centers surrounding landlord’s houses. These élite residences are found in quantity, according to the survey by Joseph Michels undertook in 1974 (Michels in Kobishchanov 1979; Michels 1986) in and around the capital and in the region of a number of villages as far as Yeah. The term `villa’ for these mansion-and-dependencies groups is tempting (Anfray 1974: 761), but they are evidently not all country and/or farm-houses like the Roman villas. The largest ones at Aksum and other towns could have had a different function from the smaller, more scattered country ones, although the general plan might have been common to both; even this is not yet properly confirmed since a number of town mansions have been excavated but none of the remoter ones. Michel’s published information tells us very little about the possible function of the larger and smaller élite residences in the Aksum area, and we can only guess how to interpret them economically and socially.
If we knew more about the chronological development of these mansions, we might be able to trace whether the type was developed at Aksum and moved from the city and royal context first to other towns and then was adopted as the model for the country mansions of a landowner class, a sequence which might be plausible. On the other hand, they may have originated elsewhere; in, for example, Adulis, with its greater exposure to foreign influences, and spread thence to Aksum and the countryside.
In those towns which became administrative centers of the Aksumite state, Aksumite institutions would, of course, be prominent. The largest mansions probably housed the ruler of the region and acted as governmental and ceremonial centers; their layout, with the separation of the imposing central pavilion on its podium and staircases, seems emphatically designed to impress. In such a town mansions the outer ranges must have been partly used for occupation and partly for service activities. We are still archaeologically ignorant of what went on in the dependencies. Certain features, like ovens, would indicate domestic activities serving the central occupant and all his people; others, like a possible heating system under the floor, would seem to indicate a luxury dwelling. Some rooms may even have been used as manufacturies of items needed in everyday life. Francis Anfray excavated one of these mansions just to the west of present-day Aksum, the so-called `Château de Dungur’, and when the results of this excavation are completely published we will certainly have a much clearer idea of the nature of these structures (Anfray 1972).
Illustration 7. View of the Dungur villa, showing one of the facades of the central pavilion with a double staircase leading to the entrance. Photo R. Brereton. The country mansions, one might think, were more likely to have been on agriculturally based estates of the surrounding region, perhaps owned by city-dwellers who possessed the capital to build elsewhere as well. The land around Aksum or any other largish town must have become a good investment as the city grew and the demand for foodstuffs increased.
Did some of these mansions lie in estates which were selected since they could produce sufficient surplus crops to serve the capital? Some of the mansions we know of were situated close enough to Aksum to exploit the constant demand the town-market must have created, provided there were a reasonable road and transport system to guarantee the preservation of perishables in transit; there may have been wheeled carts and porters employed for inland transport, and one made-up stone road, apparently ancient, has been found northeast of Aksum. Conversely, this demand must have acted as a spur to production. In such circumstances, one can well imagine the Aksumite noble or businessman deciding to try out an agricultural investment, and building on his estate the imitation of his town mansion. Such mansions would then have been in some sense dependencies themselves. Alternatively, perhaps, we should think in terms of a `rural aristocracy’ living and farming on their estates? In fact, we know nothing of such putative estates; only the existence of the mansions themselves allows us to postulate the estates.
Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity
- 2-1. The Legends of Aksum
2-2. Aksum in Ancient Sources
2-3. The Rediscovery of Aksum in Modern Times
- 3-1. The Landscape
3-2. Origins and Expansion of the Kingdom
3-3. The Development of Aksum; an Interpretation
3-4. Cities, Towns, and Villages
3-5. The Inhabitants
3-6. Foreign Relations
- 4-1 The Pre-Aksumite Period
4-2 Early Aksum until the Reign of Gadarat
4-3 Gadarat to Endubis
4-4 Endubis to Ezana
4-5 Ezana after his Conversion, to Kaleb
4-6. Kaleb to the End of the Coinage
4-7. The Post-Aksumite Period
- 5-1. The Site
5-2. The Town Plan
5-3. Portuguese Records of Aksum
5-4. Aksumite Domestic Architecture
5-5. The Funerary Architecture
5-6. The Stelae
- 7-1. The King and the State
7-2. The Regalia
7-3. Dual Kingship
7-5. The Royal Titles
7-6. The Coronation
- 8-1. Population
8-2. Agriculture, Husbandry, and Animal Resources
8-3. Metal Resources
8-4. Trade, Imports and Exports
8-5. Local Industries
- 9-1. The Origins
9-2. Introduction and Spread of the Coinage
9-3. Internal Aspects of the Coinage
9-4. The Mottoes
9-5. The End of the Coinage
9-6. Modern Study of the Coinage
- 10-1. The Pre-Christian Period
10-2. The Conversion to Christianity
10-3. Abreha and Atsbeha
10-4. Ecclesiastical Development
- 11-1. The Inscriptional Record
11-2. The Military Structure
11-4. The Fleet
11-5. The Aksumite inscriptions
- 15-1. The Failure of Resources
15-2. The Climate
15-3. External and Internal Political Troubles
15-4. The Najashi Ashama ibn Abjar
15-5. The NatsaniDaniell